As the pandemic appears to be turning a corner, a newly released report has shed a light on another pandemic that is raging in society. Entitled Changing Circumstances Surrounding Opioid-Related Deaths in Ontario during the COVID-19 Pandemic, it has confirmed what many in the healthcare sector have known for some time: there has been a significant acceleration in the number of opioid-related deaths between February 2020 and December 2020.
Overall, there were 1,500 overdose deaths in Ontario in 2019. That number rocketed to 2,500 in 2020, marking a 60 per cent increase year over year. Of those deaths, close to 30 per cent of those who were employed during the pandemic were in the construction industry.
There are many factors that have contributed to the increase. Social isolation, the rise of far more toxic opioids in the streets, a younger demographic, overprescribing of painkillers for workplace injuries without the benefit of counselling, and travel restrictions have only added to the stress the population is experiencing.
Sadly, statistics also show that Canadians care less about opioid addiction than before the pandemic, according to Angus Reid Research. Interest has dropped from 42 per cent to only 16 per cent within the past year.
The preponderance of construction-related overdose deaths comes as no surprise to Phil Gillies, from the Ontario Construction Consortium (OCC), which is working with trade unions in launching a new awareness campaign called TheOtherPandemic.ca.
“Months ago, the Centers for Disease Control reported that construction workers have the highest rate of opioid-related overdoses compared to any other occupation in the U.S. We knew the same was going on in Canada. This latest report confirms that we’re in a very serious situation that all regional and local unions need to do their part to address.”
TheOtherPandemic.ca was launched to focus attention on the issue, Gillies added. “Nothing has been done in Canada so far. Awareness is the first step in making workers, employers and government more conscious of the problems and dangers.”
“The U.S. has been ahead of Canada in taking on the challenge. But there is a great deal we can learn from them in facing this crisis,” said Mike Yorke, president, Carpenters’ District Council of Ontario (CDCO) which is a key partner in the research and OCC campaign.
The Carpenters’ Union is responding on behalf of the membership through training, social and infrastructure support, as well as lobbying and taking part in class action suits against manufacturers, prescribers and distributors of opioids, Yorke explained. “We’re not just doing this for the membership, but also standing up on behalf of non-union workers. When we speak about skills, healthcare and education, we speak for all carpenters. And it isn’t just in Ontario. Many other jurisdictions are taking part in class action lawsuits.”
The fallout has been devastating for workers on many fronts, he said. “There’s the social breakdown and family issues that are associated with this as well. Drug addiction, mental health, suicide and overdose – it’s all intertwined.”
That is why it is essential to drive culture change around mental health awareness and care, said Nick Boyce, director, Ontario Harm Reduction Network (OHRN). “One of the biggest challenges is getting people to talk and break down the stigma around drug use. It’s good to focus on that. Unions are going to have to be creative in the kinds of support they provide for people needing treatment and other programs such as safe injection sites.”
Yorke points to the International Training Center in Las Vegas, which has introduced a new program, Opioid and Mental Health Awareness. According to Frank Hawk, a trainer at the Center and chief officer of the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters, “We are losing more members due to substance use and suicide than from jobsite accidents. Clearly some changes are needed.”
The College of Carpenters and staff at the CDCO are engaged in mental health first aid and awareness programs, Yorke said. “The basic training is done here, then moves on to the International Training Center.”
Last but not least is forging relationships with government and supporting critical research and data efforts, Yorke said. “Credit should go to Mayors John Tory, Patrick Brown and Fred Eisenberger, as well as federal ministers for expressing interest in what we’re doing.
“The stunning part [of the report] is that there isn’t any other industry that is even close. It is indicative of something that is a very focused problem,” Mayor Tory said. “But that also means we can find a focused solution with the help of the governments that have to do more.”
“It’s encouraging to see labour, management and government tackling challenges workers face with opioids in the workplace,” said Monte McNaughton, Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development. “Working together, we can find solutions that make our job sites safer and our communities stronger,”
“If we can make a positive change, everyone will benefit,” Yorke said. “We’re just scratching the surface but heading in the right direction.”
This story was created by Content Works, Postmedia’s commercial content division, on behalf of Carpenters’ District Council of Ontario.